Helping Your Financial Aid Office Help You
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Applying for need-based financial aid adds additional requirements to the college application process, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Your college’s financial aid office is there to help you through the process, and financial aid officers will do their best to get you the aid you need.
As an applicant, there are certain things you can do to keep your interactions with the financial aid office smooth and effective. I spent two years working in a financial aid office, answering phones and otherwise facilitating communication between students and staff, and I’ve seen just how helpful your financial aid office can be—as well as the mistakes some students make that can delay or complicate the process.
Now it’s time for me to share what my experience has taught me. In this post, you’ll find some tips for becoming a more informed aid applicant, maintaining realistic expectations about the financial aid office, and giving that office the best possible chance to effectively solve whatever problems you encounter.
Learn the Language of Financial Aid
The financial aid application process comes with new terminology for you to learn. You’ll need to know the difference between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, understand what your Expected Family Contribution means, and interpret the line items on your award letter when it arrives.
Knowing the correct terms is a lifesaver when it comes to communicating effectively with your financial aid office. It’s normal for you to experience some confusion at first, and the office will expect it, but the faster you learn the language, the faster you can get to the meat of financial aid issues and find solutions.
A miscommunication due to the use of an incorrect term can potentially impact your financial aid application negatively. If you get two forms mixed up and send in the wrong one, your aid application may be delayed while the mistake is identified and the correct form is sent. If you don’t fully understand the explanation of how aid is determined at a particular school, your expectations may be inaccurate, and you might get an unpleasant surprise when you receive your award.
This may sound like a very basic tip, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t follow the directions they’re given. Whether it’s because of ignorance, an honest mistake in interpretation, or simple inattention to detail, not following directions can cause all sorts of problems with your financial aid.
First of all, make sure the directions you’re using are the correct ones. Don’t use the instructions for first-year applicants if you’re a transfer applicant. Don’t follow the directions that specifically apply to international students if you’re a domestic student. You don’t have to fill out every single document you can find on the financial aid website, as I’ve seen some people do. Only fill out those forms that apply to your situation and that you’re instructed to fill out.
Your financial aid application asks certain questions for a reason. The financial aid office needs that information to calculate your financial need, determine your aid eligibility, and put together your aid award. The entire system of need-based financial aid depends upon the financial aid office getting a clear and full picture of your family’s financial situation.
If you don’t provide the correct information on your aid application, your eligibility and eventual award will be calculated incorrectly. If you leave out information you’ve been asked to provide, whether accidentally or on purpose, your application can’t be processed at all, and you won’t receive aid until you fix the problem. (This is also a good reason to double-check everything for accuracy and completion.)
In general, you have to answer all the questions you’re asked and provide all the documents you’re asked to provide. If you’re not sure, or you have trouble providing the necessary information, ask your financial aid office how to proceed before the application’s due date, and be prepared to provide documentation for any special circumstances.
Absolute deadlines for turning in financial aid materials vary by school, so you’ll have to speak to your financial aid office directly for more information. Especially if you’ve made an honest mistake, your financial aid office may be able to work with you personally or make exceptions to general policies so that you’re able to get the aid you need. It’s better to ask about your options than to wait, wonder, or resign yourself to insufficient aid.
Know How and Where To Send Information
Your financial aid award can’t be calculated at all if your application isn’t in the right hands. Like following directions, submitting your application materials to the right place might seem simple, but it’s easy to mess up, and a small mistake can cause big problems. A document sent to the wrong place might eventually be found or forwarded, but there’s no guarantee. (Always keep a copy for yourself!)
Application materials like the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, which are submitted online, minimize the opportunity for mistakes. However, they’re not foolproof; you’ll need to make sure that you’ve indicated the correct school(s) to receive your information. Errors can also occur if there’s a typo in your Social Security number, which can derail document tracking systems.
If you have to mail anything, make sure you have the correct street address—you can find it on the college’s financial aid website. (This might not be the same address as the one for admissions materials, or the one for the visitor center for prospective students.) If you send documents via fax, make sure you have the right fax number. Again, this seems self-explanatory, but in my experience, mistakes are common.
Due to security concerns, many colleges don’t accept sensitive financial documents (like tax returns) via email. You might talk with your financial aid officer via email, but don’t send any documents related to your aid application via email unless you’re explicitly instructed to do so— you may end up have to resend them via another method anyway.
Before you send documents, find out whether your college requires you to format or label them in a particular way. For instance, if any of your financial documents are in a language other than English, you’ll probably need to have them translated. A college might also require that you write your last name and applicant ID number (or other specific pieces of information) on every page you send, so that they’re less likely to be misfiled.
For especially sensitive information—or simply for your own peace of mind—you can use a service that comes with a tracking number, such as Priority Mail, Fedex, or UPS. These methods are typically faster than the normal post, so they can be useful for urgent situations. Most of the time, however, normal methods work just fine.
Keep The Financial Aid Office Updated
If anything substantial changes about your family’s financial situation, it’s your job to inform your financial aid office. Certain changes may lead to a change in your eligibility and/or your award. For instance, if a parent’s job loss or medical emergency leaves you scrambling to pay your term bill, your financial aid office may be able to adjust your award.
Asking isn’t the same as waving a magic wand—you may not get the help you’re seeking—but it doesn’t hurt to ask. It’s far better to contact the financial aid office and explain your situation than to suffer in silence or even drop out of school.
Some changes could result in a decrease in your financial aid, but it’s still your responsibility to report them. For example, if you receive an outside scholarship, your college may choose to decrease their institutional aid. Don’t try to hide situations like these—it’s best to face the issue head-on and work out the details promptly.
You’ll also need to update your financial office about more mundane changes in your life. Contact information is particularly important, since a misdirected communication could affect your financial aid and expose your sensitive financial information. If you moved to a new address, got a new phone number, or changed your preferred email address, let the financial aid office (and other university offices) know immediately.
Respect Deadlines and Give the Office Time to Work
Your financial aid application deadlines may seem early, but it takes more time and work than you might think to create your financial aid award. At the office where I worked, I saw staffers working copious overtime in the busy period between March and May to get award letters out to applicants on schedule, while also balancing the needs of current students.
The process of calculating your award can’t even begin until all of your information is received. At many schools, your award must also be approved by a committee or senior official before it can be released. This further extends the process, especially if that committee meets infrequently.
Turning your aid application in late will delay your award. At some schools, it can even jeopardize your access to funds. Financial aid offices do their best to accommodate students’ needs, but their workload during admissions season is massive, and they have to prioritize students who do meet the deadlines.
Similarly, financial aid staffers can’t always answer your questions or attend to your requests immediately. If your situation isn’t an emergency, it’s normal to have to wait. Remember, financial aid officers may be taking care of another student whose situation is more urgent than yours, or they may be waiting for information, input, or approval regarding your situation.
If You’re Unsure, Ask Questions
Applying for aid is a complex process that asks for a great deal of information from you, and doing things incorrectly the first time around can result in an inaccurate or delayed aid award. It’s always best to ask if you’re not sure how to proceed.
Financial aid offices are used to answering questions, so don’t worry about imposing or appearing ignorant. No matter how silly you feel asking a particular question, I can guarantee that someone has asked it before, and it won’t negatively impact your application. If your question is general, you might not even have to give your name when you call.
You can ask questions about more than just specific line items on your aid application or award. This can help you to maintain realistic expectations about factors like timing. If you find out that a certain process will take two weeks, you’re less likely to start worrying when you haven’t gotten a response after a few days.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Sometimes, the financial aid application process goes awry. The people who work at your financial aid office are human, and though they work hard to get you what you need, they’re not always perfect. They might mislay a document, overlook an important factor in your application, answer a question incorrectly, or mess up in any number of other ways.
You’re also human, so you may make a mistake yourself, like accidentally checking the box on the Common Application indicating that you’re not applying for aid. Even if both you and the financial aid office do everything right, unforeseen events like computer glitches can occur.
No matter where the problem originated, the financial aid office will do its best to rectify the mistake quickly. However, it’s not always possible for mistakes like these to be resolved as quickly as you’d like.
This experience is undeniably stressful, and it’s natural to feel frustrated or worried, but it’s important for you to remain calm and keep the conversation productive. Yelling or otherwise directing anger at the financial aid office won’t help. It will only make communication—and finding a resolution—more difficult.
Besides, it’s a good rule to always be polite and professional when dealing with colleges, even if you’re upset. These people play a major role in determining your future options, so it’s to your benefit to treat them with respect and show them that you’re a mature young adult.
Understand That There Are No Guarantees
As we’ve covered in previous posts about financial aid, applicants don’t always get what they want. Your perception of your need may not match up with what your college decides, your school may have a limited budget, or special circumstances may complicate your situation in unexpected ways.
Financial aid offices are working under significant constraints, from the college’s policies to busy schedules filled with many prospective and current students to accommodate. Even if your own financial aid officer sympathizes with and advocates for you, the recommendation that officer makes may not be approved.
If you think a mistake has been made or you disagree with your financial aid officer’s handling of your case, it may be appropriate to escalate your efforts. It’s okay to ask to speak to a supervisor or appeal your award decision.
What isn’t okay is harassing, berating, or otherwise behaving inappropriately to members of the financial aid staff. You might think that sounds unbelievably rude, but it does happen sometimes! Again, keep it professional and mature, and remember that even if you file a complaint appropriately, you may not get the resolution you’re looking for.
The financial aid process can be tough and complicated, and in the end, not everyone gets exactly what they want. However, need-based financial aid also has the potential to revolutionize your college search process, protect your financial future, and open doors that you may not have even known existed.
While you’re enmeshed in your FAFSA, CSS Profile, and other paperwork, it pays to take a few minutes to think about how you can make life easier for the financial aid offices that will process and evaluate your applications. Not only are you helping them, you’re also helping yourself by doing what you can to make the aid application process run more smoothly.
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